The Seattle Kraken are going to need a strong leadership group going into their inaugural year. They may not necessarily need a captain right off the bat, but a few veteran players who have experience as leaders on winning teams will be necessary. Derek Stepan is an unrestricted free agent who general manager Ron Francis should take a good look at.
Stepan stepped right into the NHL with the New York Rangers following two successful college seasons, scoring 87 points in 81 games at the University of Wisconsin. He has played 759 regular season and 106 playoff games. His teams made the playoffs in eight seasons and he was eliminated after one round only twice.
Stepan was a Ranger during their four-year run that included two trips to the Eastern Conference Final as well as a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. He was a key player for the Rangers, scoring 11 goals and 36 points in 63 games across those three series. During two of those playoff runs, including their trip to the Cup Final, he was in the top three in scoring.
Prior to his 2020-21 season ending due to a torn labrum, he found chemistry playing on a line with Ottawa Senators youngsters Tim Stützle and Drake Batherson. His influence on the pair earned him praise from head coach D.J. Smith.
He’s 31 years old and his offensive numbers have fallen off over the last few seasons, but Stepan still has a lot to offer on the ice. He sees regular penalty kill and power play time and maintains his discipline, never eclipsing 26 penalty minutes in a season.
During his time in New York, Stepan was an alternate captain for three seasons, including during two of those deep playoff runs. He learned from experienced Stanley Cup winners in Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, alumni of the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning. Two other Rangers teammates were captains before being traded to Tampa and being named alternates there, Ryan Callahan and Ryan McDonagh. The latter won the Cup this past season with the Lightning.
Why does any of that matter? Their guidance helped turn Stepan into the leader he is, and he was named an alternate captain in his first season after being traded to the Arizona Coyotes.
“Coyotes center Derek Stepan didn’t just participate in the team’s informal skates at the Ice Den in Scottsdale during the lead-up to training camp. He helped lead the sessions…Stepan was still passing out directions once camp officially opened, offering up advice before coach Rick Tocchet diagrammed instructions on the whiteboard” (from “Derek Stepan filling leadership role for Arizona Coyotes by being himself”, AZCentral – 9/16/17).
In that season, the ‘Yotes didn’t see much improvement from the previous year. However, they took strides the next two seasons, where Stepan was still an alternate captain.
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The following year, they improved by 16 points and barely missed out on a playoff spot, as the Colorado Avalanche had 90 points to their 86. While COVID-19 cut the regular season short in Stepan’s final year in Arizona before being traded, they made it past the qualifying round in the bubble, and he scored five points in nine games before the Coyotes bowed out in Round 1.
The Senators traded for Stepan due to having a younger and inexperienced core, especially down the middle. Whether or not his offensive production gets back to his 50-plus point days, his value to a team runs far deeper.
Stepan is coming off a six-year, $39-million contract that carried a $6.5 million cap hit. Francis needs to be careful not to overpay the veteran. He would be a valuable leader and voice in a thrown-together locker room, and still plays a 200-foot game, but giving a big contract to a 31-year-old with a flat salary cap is dangerous.
The safe bet would be a two-year, $6 million contract, giving a cap hit of $3 million. Stepan has expressed willingness to teach a younger group, which may be what he’s looking at in Seattle. The term is fair given that he is an older player in a league that values younger legs. The cap hit is fair as well, based on the flat cap and assumption he’d fall into a depth leadership role. However, depending on the expansion and entry drafts, he could see a return to the top-six.
This would be a team-friendly deal and still allow Stepan to move to a contender at the deadline, or after the contract expires if the Kraken struggle out of the gate, to compete for the Cup. Craig Smith’s three-year, $9.3-million contract with the Boston Bruins can be a good comparison. They’re the same age and fill a similar role.
If Stepan’s offensive numbers match or surpass Smith’s, it’s an added bonus for what he brings to the table. Stepan still has a lot to offer, especially on a team that’s put together from pieces. He could be part of the glue that brings everything together. The Kraken should look to sign him.